Wednesday, February 14, 2018

I reckon eventually, something will blow

Barry Soper made a surprising statement on Newstalk ZB yesterday. I didn’t take down his exact words, but essentially he said nothing was going to happen in the next three years (he meant politically) except that Jacinda Ardern was going to have a baby.

Perhaps it was intended as a tongue-in-cheek comment on the media’s fascination with the prime ministerial pregnancy. But if not, it was an astonishingly bold pronouncement from someone who has covered politics as long as Soper has, and who must surely know the risks of making predictions.

Just hours later, Bill English announced he was retiring, and immediately the political landscape looked very different. Presto – just like that.

Now Wellington is buzzing with speculation about who will succeed English and what difference it might make. The consensus seems to be that National must look to the 2023 election rather than 2020 to regain power. This is based on the conventional wisdom that National’s fatal strategic mistake in 2017 was that it lacked a strong coalition ally, and that it’s going to take longer than three years for one to emerge.

This is an entirely plausible scenario, but it overlooks one possibility. No one can predict with any certainty that the present Labour-led government will hold together for a full term. Its internal contradictions and tensions are such that it could easily tear itself apart, in which case all bets will be off.

The greatest challenge will be reconciling the strains between New Zealand First and the Greens, who represent polar opposites on the ideological spectrum. There will be ample opportunity for this fault line to rupture, and I think we got a glimpse of one this morning with the announcement that the government might scrap plans to put video cameras on fishing boats to monitor bycatch (albatrosses, seals and so forth) and possible illegal dumping of fish.

This is hardly likely to play well with Labour’s Green allies, whose attitude toward fishing companies was summed up by former Green MP Kevin Hague’s statement that the industry couldn’t be trusted. This puts the National Party – which supports the video cameras proposal – in the unusual position of being able to claim the moral high ground with environmentalists, which won’t go down well with the Greens.

For conspiracy theorists, there’s a delectable note of intrigue here because of Winston Peters’ well-documented association with fishing industry interests. Fishing companies have been generous donors to New Zealand First and Peters was instrumental in the Labour-led government’s decision to kybosh the Kermadec marine sanctuary, which was initially championed by Green MP Gareth Hughes.

That backtrack ruffled Green feathers, and so will the retreat from the video cameras proposal. It will be nigh impossible to allay suspicion that Peters wielded his baneful influence behind the scenes.

There is potential for many more such irritants in the fraught relationship between New Zealand First and the Greens. We’ve seen a few already and the government is only four months old. Green MPs, who are driven by idealism and like to think of themselves as highly principled, will be able to button their lips and play the pragmatic game for only so long. I reckon eventually, something will blow. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Pssst - don't mention asylums

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 9.)

We should always cherish the lone voice – the individual bold enough to go against the flow and to speak out against conventional wisdom when conventional wisdom has got it wrong.

Andy Espersen of Nelson is such a voice. I’ve never met him, but I’ve been reading his letters to the papers for years.

Like most lone voices, Espersen is a single-issue crusader. In his case, the issue is mental health. His consistent and persuasive message is that New Zealand made a grievous mistake when it shut down its mental hospitals three decades ago.

Unlike some lone voices, Espersen is not a crank. He spent 40 years working in mental hospitals as a staff nurse and psychiatric social worker (he’s in his 80s now), so he’s no armchair theorist.

In his most recent letter to this paper, he asked whether the mental health inquiry ordered by the new government would dare question the policy of de-institutionalisation and the airy-fairy concept of community care for the mentally ill.

I suspect he knows the answer to his question. Although prime minister Jacinda Ardern has promised nothing will be off the table in the inquiry, community care is such an ideological sacred cow that no one, other than Espersen, even considers the possibility that the old way might have been better.

My prediction is that activists will do their best to ensure that the inquiry focuses on the supposed “drivers” of mental illness. These will include poverty, racism, colonisation, homelessness and homophobia. In other words, they will want to make it all about victims.

No one will want to talk about the virtues of the old “asylums”, because the word is deeply unfashionable. But they were given that name for a reason. An asylum is a place that provides sanctuary. That’s why we talk about political prisoners seeking asylum and asylum-seekers who have fled from unsafe countries.

An asylum was a place where the mentally ill were guaranteed a warm bed, three meals a day, medical care and company, if they wanted it. There were nurses to ensure they took their medication. It wasn’t an ideal existence, but it was safe and secure.

In the 1980s, however, mental health professionals decided the system was inhumane. Hospitalisation was little better than imprisonment, they argued. The mentally ill were entitled like everyone else to live independently and autonomously.

Wrapped in the warm embrace of that amorphous thing called the community, they would be liberated to fulfil their true potential as human beings.

It didn’t seem to matter if they were incapable of cooking, shopping, managing their finances, holding down a job, washing their clothes or showering. And so they ended up living in squalid flats, boarding houses and caravan parks where there was no one to ensure they took their meds. At best, a nurse or mental health worker might check on them occasionally.

It was an ideologically driven change, but the government bean-counters and deconstructionists liked it because it meant the closure of all those big, expensive old institutions.

Doubtless this bold experiment worked for some people, but its negative consequences can be seen in frequent heart-breaking newspaper reports about acutely ill patients living in the community who have committed murder or suicide. Ironically, the victims of their mad rage are often the people who are closest to them and care most about them – their families.

If you missed the last such newspaper story, don’t worry. They’re like buses – there’ll be another one along soon.

There’s a recurring pattern to the human tragedies described in these accounts. Usually they have stopped taken their medication. They may be abusing illegal drugs or alcohol. Often they are living in chaotic circumstances. None of this would happen if they were in a hospital.

Their families are driven to despair. Pleas for help fall on deaf ears or get swallowed up in a cumbersome and unresponsive bureaucracy.

The system allows district health boards to wash their hands of difficult patients the moment they’re out the door. Too often it’s left to the police to pick up the pieces.

Coroners repeatedly make recommendations about how the system needs to be improved. The authorities solemnly nod in agreement, then ignore them.

The prison system ends up bearing part of the burden too. Espersen estimated last year that there were about 2000 mentally ill prisoners who should be in mental hospitals.

As he said in one letter, "We as a society ought to be ashamed". The mental health inquiry has an opportunity to do something about this - but will it?


You can argue with Mallard's method, but not his motive

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 7.)

The census figures say it all, really.

Since 1991, the number of New Zealanders describing themselves as Christian has tracked consistently and quite sharply downwards, from nearly 70 percent to 48 percent.

There has been a corresponding upward trend in the number claiming no religious belief – up to 42 percent in 2013, the most recent census year.

If this pattern continues, it would be no surprise if the 2018 census showed non-believers outnumbering Christians in New Zealand, confirming our status as one of the world’s most secular countries.

As a point of comparison, 83 per cent of Americans described themselves as Christian in a poll last year and only 13 percent said they had no religion. In Australia the figures are 52 percent (Christian) and 30 percent (non-believers).

Meanwhile, there has been a steady rise in the number of New Zealand residents adhering to other religious beliefs besides Christianity – notably Hindus (whose numbers doubled between 2001 and 2013), Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs.

This is the consequence of a radical change in immigration policy dating from 1987, when the Lange government shifted from a system that gave preference to applicants from Britain, Europe and North America to one that was essentially skills-based. This opened the door to migrants of diverse ethnicities and religions from Asia and other parts of the Third World.

In the light of all this, it was unsurprising that Trevor Mallard, who became parliamentary Speaker following the change of government, decided that the explicitly Christian prayer which opens proceedings when Parliament is sitting was overdue for a rewrite.

When Parliament resumed after the 2017 election, reference to Jesus Christ and the Queen had been deleted. Mallard apparently made this decision unilaterally, short-circuiting what was expected to be a consultation process.

It seemed high-handed but it was consistent with his style. And he was within his rights, since the Speaker is the boss in Parliament in much the same way as judges decide how their courts are run. It may seem paradoxical, but Parliament is not an institution run on strictly democratic lines.

After the summer recess, however, Mallard back-pedalled. When Parliament resumed last week it was with a compromise version of the prayer. The Queen had been reinstated – as she should be, given that she’s our head of state. But of Jesus Christ, there was no mention. And just to rub salt into the wounds of traditionalists, Mallard recited the prayer in Maori.

Setting aside the question of whether he should have consulted before barging ahead in the first place, the muted public reaction to the change suggests that most New Zealanders are pretty relaxed about it.

That’s not surprising, given that fewer than half the population now profess to be Christian. I suspect that if the census drilled down a bit further and asked respondents whether they solemnly believed that Jesus Christ was truly the son of God, which is what defines a Christian, they might be even fewer in number.

Many people who think of themselves as Christian use the term in a much looser sense, denoting someone who tries to live according to Christian values. Such people are unlikely to take great offence at Christ no longer being mentioned in the parliamentary prayer, the wording of which was clumsy and archaic and thus due for revision regardless of religious feelings.

Those who believe in the existence of a supreme being will be consoled that the prayer still acknowledges “almighty God”, although in such a way that adherents of other religious beliefs besides Christians can feel it refers to their God too.

Naturally, not everyone is happy with this compromise. The TV news showed a rally at Parliament protesting at the change. The ecstatic singing, the blissful facial expressions and the waving of arms toward the heavens suggested this was an evangelistic fringe of New Zealand Christianity rather than the mainstream.

If I understood him correctly, the protesters’ leader argued that our system of government largely derives from Judeo-Christian principles and that Parliament should therefore acknowledge and honour Christ as embodying and inspiring those principles.

It’s a legitimate argument but it only goes so far, because modern democracy requires that we acknowledge and respect other religious beliefs.

Some devout Christians struggle with this idea, because their faith in Christ is absolute and allows for no alternatives. Most of us, though, accept that modern New Zealand is a pluralist society that accommodates a range of belief systems, just as long as they don’t intrude on anyone else’s rights.

We should thank God, if you’ll pardon the expression, that we live in a tolerant, liberal society rather than an oppressive theocracy, such as Iran, or one of those countries where religious passions can lead to murder and mayhem, such as India or Myanmar.  

Mind you, it does our MPs no harm to start their day with an acknowledgement that they are answerable to a higher power. If only they could make a more sincere attempt to live up to the sentiments expressed in the prayer, particularly the bit about humility.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Time to dial back the anti-Trump vitriol?

(First published in The Dominion Post, January 26.)

The late country singer Waylon Jennings once wrote and recorded a song with the splendid title Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.

It was a wry comment on the consequences of being identified as a key figure in country music’s outlaw movement, so named because it rebelled against the white-bread conservatism of the country music mainstream.

A magazine article about Jennings had referred to his cocaine use, which resulted in federal drug agents raiding the studio where he was recording. That was the genesis of the song, which included the lines: “Someone called us outlaws in some old magazine/And New York sent a posse down like I ain’t never seen.”

It wasn’t exactly Jennings’ most memorable song, but its title sprang into my head a few days ago while I was reading the latest frenzied denunciations of Donald Trump. 

I loathe Trump, as does virtually everyone I know. But things have got to the point where it’s fair to ask: Don’t you think this Donald Trump bit’s done got out of hand?

The unceasing barrage of anti-Trump vitriol in the media has reached fever pitch, but you have to wonder what it’s achieving. The polls show virtually no decline in the number of American voters who approve of him, while the number who strongly approve of him remains steady at 28-30 per cent.

Meanwhile, inconveniently for Trump despisers like me, economists are talking about the “Trump bump”. The American economy is humming along merrily and there has been a rise in consumer confidence.

Some anti-Trump comment is right on the nail. An example was Tom Scott’s cartoon three days ago which had Trump saying: “Fake news says that I am a narcissist, which I am not. But if I was, I would be the best narcissist ever, period, no question!”

It perfectly encapsulated the US president’s combination of vanity and oafishness and might even have coaxed a grudging smile from Trump fans.

But mostly the condemnation directed at Trump is preaching to the converted. After all, the people who are appalled by him made up their minds long before he got to the White House. Constantly disparaging and ridiculing him may reinforce their sense of moral certitude, but there’s no evidence that it will change anything.

In fact it may be counter-productive, because those who support Trump look at the outpouring of loathing in the media and take it as proof that he’s the victim of a conspiracy by elitist journalists who are overwhelmingly biased against him and interested only in publishing material that reflects badly on him.

Some American journalists are wise enough to see this. On America’s National Public Radio last week I heard Michael Woolf say that the US press was behaving hysterically and making a fool of itself. “As we go after his [Trump’s] credibility, our credibility equally becomes a problem,” he said.

Woolf is no cheerleader for Trump. He’s the author of the recent best-seller Fire and Fury, an exposé of the president’s bizarre behaviour in the White House. 

It was also on National Public Radio (which, incidentally, wrings it hands in anguish over Trump 24/7) that I heard an even more damning condemnation of the US media from another journalist, Glenn Greenwald.

This might seem surprising, since Greenwald is a hero of the Left. He collaborated with National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden and came to New Zealand for Kim Dotcom’s much-vaunted “Moment of Truth” event, which was supposed to turn the tide against John Key’s government immediately before the 2014 election.

I can’t imagine Greenwald is a fan of Trump any more than Woolf is. But to his credit he exposed the fact that several major American media outlets, including CNN and CBS, published a false story implicating the Trump camp in a Russian hacking operation.

The media outlets portrayed the story as a smoking gun and claimed it had been verified by multiple sources. But a crucial date proved to be wrong, which completely nullified their account – and when it became obvious they had got it wrong, they tried to wriggle out by broadcasting a grudging, half-hearted correction.

According to Greenwald, it was the latest in a series of serious mistakes made by journalists reporting Trump’s suspected links with Russia. He says the US media are in such a frenzy to “get the goods” on Trump that they are willing to violate the principles of good journalism, thereby confirming public suspicions that they cannot be trusted and inviting Trump’s taunts about “fake news”.

If Waylon Jennings were still around, it would make a great song.  I’ve got just the title for it.

FOOTNOTE: An anonymous commenter took a whack at me on Stuff yesterday for making the supposedly “obligatory declaration for media types” of disclosing my loathing for Trump. Well, I do loathe Trump. Would this person have preferred that I was dishonest about admitting it? Didn’t the rest of my column serve as a warning that “media types” – that includes me – risk having their journalistic judgment distorted by their aversion to him? And didn't I acknowledge that the US economy was thriving, as this commenter was anxious to point out? Sigh. You just can’t win. 

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Jacinda Ardern and the Trudeau effect

It’s natural that journalists are attracted to Jacinda Ardern. For a start, she’s of the same generation as most people working at the front line of the media, and the same sex as a large proportion of them. It’s fair to say that her political views probably mirror those of many, if not most, journalists too. To put it simply, she’s like them.

Besides, journalism thrives on newness and novelty, and Ardern represents what many journalists see as an exhilarating and overdue generational change in the Beehive. For nine years we were governed by middle-aged men in suits – men who, moreover, were nominally on the conservative side of politics, even if their policies didn’t always reflect that. Ardern is still in her 30s. She’s fresh, spontaneous, personable, accessible and seems effortlessly in control of things. To use a silly popular expression, what’s not to like?

Call it the Trudeau effect. Admittedly Pierre Trudeau was a lot older, at 48, when he became prime minister of Canada in 1968, but the media reaction was similar. The press were mesmerised by the charismatic, left-leaning lawyer – a phenomenon replicated more recently by his youthful-looking son Justin.

It happened under John F Kennedy too, and anyone who was in Australia in the 1960s and 70s will remember South Australian premier Don Dunstan having a similar effect. Dunstan was another suave lawyer and intellectual whose relative youth and liberal views set him apart from the crusty old reactionaries – such as Queensland’s Joh Bjelke-Petersen and Victoria’s Sir Henry Bolte – who then dominated Australian politics. The Australian media loved him.

There’s an obvious professional hazard here, because it’s hard to write critically about someone you like. Journalists should be aware of this trap – women journalists especially, since they are more likely than men to identify with Ardern. They should recognise their affinity with her and offset it by making an extra effort to be hard-headed in the way they report her, but there’s not much evidence of that happening. You have to search hard in the mainstream media for any comment pieces that are critical of Ardern, or that even ask awkward questions about her leadership. I believe most of the journalists covering her want her to succeed and, consciously or otherwise, shy away from writing anything that might shatter her golden halo. But democracy depends on politicians being held accountable – and for that, we need journalists to be professionally sceptical, regardless of how they might feel personally.

The golden halo effect has been obvious – you might say almost nauseatingly so – in the way the media covered the announcement of Ardern’s pregnancy.  The political scientist Bryce Edwards compiles a very useful daily compendium of virtually everything written about New Zealand politics in the mainstream media and the better-known blogs. Monday’s summary contained nearly 100 news stories and comment pieces on the Jacinda Ardern-Clarke Gayford baby, many of them written in  fawning tones more appropriate to the women’s magazines. Even a few veteran, hard-nosed hacks in the Press Gallery seemed to have been reduced to jelly by an attack of Woman’s Weekly-style baby fever.

The coverage rarely failed to rise above facile, superficial slogans and feel-good clichés. Amid all the gushing, a few commentators seized the opportunity to push ideological barrows or score points in the gender war. But almost without exception, it was cheerleader journalism. Conspicuously absent was any cool, detached analysis of the announcement, its timing or its political implications. No one wanted to break ranks and suggest that Ardern giving birth while running the country might be anything but a resounding triumph for New Zealand womanhood.

Bizarrely, you had to turn to the sport section in Stuff today to read a clear-eyed piece – by columnist Mark Reason – asking some of the questions that need to be asked. Reason used tennis star Serena Williams’ struggles with the demands of motherhood as the basis for a thoughtful and courageous analysis of the reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily be ecstatic about Ardern’s pregnancy. His reasoning (pun not intended) was probably summed up when he wrote: “Being a mother is one of the greatest and most demanding jobs a human being will ever do. So is being a prime minister. Do we seriously expect anyone to fully function in both at the same time?” It’s a question no political commentators dared ask because we’re told that girls can do anything. But not all can, as the experiences of some first-time mothers show.

Reason’s piece is important because he’s a dissenting voice at the back of the room breaking through the excited chatter and saying, “Okay, but hang on a minute”. An informed democracy needs such voices. It makes me very uneasy when media opinion runs so overwhelmingly one way that people become frightened to express a contrary view.

Before I finish, one more point about the prime minister’s pregnancy. Ardern believes in a woman’s right to have an abortion and it’s a fair bet that most, if not all, the people applauding the news of her pregnancy do too. I imagine most would support moves to liberalise the abortion laws, which are likely under this government.

What mystifies me is that the same people can be enraptured about the impending birth of a baby in one set of circumstances, yet believe that in a different situation, it can be disposed of without qualms. Pro-choice activists will say the crucial difference is whether the mother wants the baby or not, and Ardern clearly does. But how can a baby be regarded as a source of immense joy in one situation and as an inconvenient lump of tissue to be got rid of – flushed down the toilet, in effect – in another?  After all, the intrinsic worth of the baby doesn’t change from one situation to the other; it’s still the same human being in the making. Can someone please explain?

None of our business? Of course it is

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 24.)

First things first. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford are entitled to our congratulations and goodwill following the announcement that they are expecting a baby.

There are few experiences more joyous or life-changing than becoming a parent, and anyone with a modicum of human empathy will want them to be blessed with a healthy baby who will grow up loved and happy. 

But amid the wave of euphoria that swept the news media following the announcement, one or two inconvenient questions appear to have been overlooked.

There is enormous pressure, even on Ardern’s political opponents, to unreservedly welcome the impending birth. Anyone not caught up in the general mood of feel-goodism risks being pilloried as a sexist, a reactionary and a killjoy.

Make no mistake: This is an ideological minefield, and the Left-leaning commentariat lost no time firing warning shots across the bows of anyone who might dare to question the circumstances of the pregnancy or its political implications.

After all, everyone knows what happened to AM Show co- host Mark Richardson when he asked Ardern, following her elevation to the Labour leadership last August, whether she had motherhood aspirations.

Richardson has a reputation as a jock and a bit of a loudmouth (that’s his role), but it was a fair and arguably obvious question to ask on behalf of viewers, many of whom might have been wondering about the same thing.

Indeed, Ardern acknowledged that Richardson was entitled to ask about it, since she had raised the issue herself and effectively invited questions. In any case, shouldn’t all cards have been on the table when someone was asking us to elect her as prime minister?

But the subject was deemed to be off-limits because we’re told that motherhood intentions are no one’s business but the woman’s, and certainly not the business of a prospective employer. This applies even when the prospective employer is the public of New Zealand and the woman in question is running for the most important office in the land.

The message from that episode was clear: anyone who asks personal questions, particularly relating to the prime minister’s gender, can expect to be crucified. But in politics, the personal and the political constantly overlap, since personal factors unavoidably influence political positions.

It follows that only the most sensitive and intrusive personal matters should be off-limits. Yet the boundaries around what are deemed to be legitimate subjects of public discussion are being drawn ever tighter.

So what awkward questions, if any, have the media shied away from asking about Ardern’s pregnancy? They relate mainly to disclosure and political practicalities. 

Ardern has said she learned of the pregnancy on October 13. At that stage Labour and National were still vying for the favour of kingmaker Winston Peters.

The discovery that she was pregnant must have presented Ardern with an acute moral dilemma. Should she have said something?

Couples are understandably reluctant to announce a pregnancy in the early stages because apart from anything else, there’s a chance something might go amiss. Besides, Ardern at that stage might not have been confident of forming a government.

Even so, there was a chance that she would become prime minister, in which case she would have to take time off – and this during her vital first few months in charge of an inexperienced government that would still be feeling its way.

There is a valid argument that Ardern should have disclosed then that she was pregnant. That would have enabled the pregnancy to be factored into coalition negotiations, and later into how the new government would be set up and who might deputise for her.

She had a choice between disclosure and staying silent, and she chose silence. Some people, while appreciating that she must have been in an awkward predicament, will think less of her for that. Some say she misled by omission.

She then agreed to the appointment of Peters as her deputy, knowing that a man whose party won only 7 percent of the vote would be acting prime minister while she takes six weeks off – and possibly longer, given the unpredictability of childbirth and the challenges of adjusting to the demands of a baby.

And if anything goes wrong, or if Ardern struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership (although we’re not supposed to consider that prospect), what then? These are issues of public interest. We are entitled to discuss them without being shushed.

I don’t have an opinion on whether Ardern can do a good job as PM while simultaneously attending to the needs of a new baby. Perhaps she can, although mothers I know say the demands of a baby, particularly a first one, can be all-consuming and overwhelming.


We shall see. But if things don’t work out, it could have consequences for the country. This puts Ardern’s pregnancy in a different category from other expectant mothers whose personal decisions are said to be none of our business. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

50 years as a print hack

This week marks a significant anniversary for me. Fifty years ago on Monday, I began my career in journalism.

Looking back, it seems like it was a different century. Oh, that’s right, it was.

Three of us started together in the reading room of the old Evening Post in Wellington. I’m the only one still in journalism. The others dropped out decades ago.

The reading room was where everything printed in the paper – classified ads and all – was checked prior to publication for typographical errors, misspellings and other potential embarrassments.

I was a copyholder, the most menial job in journalism. It was mind-numbingly tedious work, and poorly paid at $21 a week (unless you worked extra hours  on Saturdays for the Sports Post, in which case you earned the giddy sum of $23), but it was the first step on the career ladder.

All three of us who started that day were male and straight out of secondary school. There were women in journalism then, but they were very much in the minority.

Frances Kitching, now known as Dame Fran Wilde, was one of a handful of young women in the general reporting room. She covered the Magistrate’s Court, but most female recruits were assigned to the journalistic ghetto known as the women’s pages.

Of course the gender balance has largely been reversed since then – just one of the many changes in journalism since I reported for work in the rabbit warren that was the Blundell Brothers' Evening Post building (actually three buildings, linked by a maze of corridors and walkways) on January 22, 1968.

Another change is that no one now goes straight into journalism from school and learns on the job. From the late 1960s onward, the training of journalists was gradually taken over by tertiary education institutes and universities.

I lament this. Admittedly the old system wasn’t perfect; training was haphazard and we were largely left to learn from our mistakes. (As a green cadet reporter, by then working for The Dominion, I remember a notoriously cantankerous sub-editor bellowing at me, for all the newsroom to hear, that if I didn’t learn to spell “accommodation” by the following day, he would stand me on the subs’ desk and kick my fucking arse.) But overall, it worked.

And notwithstanding all the talk now about diversity in newsrooms, the old off-the-street entry model attracted recruits with a wide range of backgrounds and life experience. Many came from working-class or lower middle-class homes. They had never been near a university and probably wouldn’t have entered journalism had they been required to study for a year beforehand.

What’s more, the system, such as it was, allowed them to develop their own individual and sometimes idiosyncratic styles – far more so than today’s academic assembly line, which tends to produce bland, cookie-cutter journalism, mostly devoid of wit or story-telling skill.

And here’s another concern about the academic takeover of journalism training. There are still journalism tutors with solid newsroom experience. Some of it was acquired so long ago that over time, they have morphed into academics. But of far greater concern are those who come from an academic background, and whose view of journalism is rooted in theory – sometimes overtly neo-Marxist theory – rather than practice.

Many of the latter type inculcate their impressionable students with the idea that the purpose of journalism is to change the world. It’s not. The purpose of journalism is simply to tell people, as objectively and even-handedly as possible, what’s happening in their world. What people choose to do with that information is over to them. 

That was the understanding implanted in previous generations of journalists, and transgressors were quickly pulled into line. Journalists who privately held strongly left-wing views, as many did, were conscientious about not allowing personal opinions to influence their work.

It all seems quaintly old-fashioned now. While many of today’s journalism graduates go out into the working world with frighteningly skimpy knowledge of history, geography, science and the English language (supposedly their stock in trade), they are exquisitely schooled in matters of class, race, sexism and inequality. One word they can all be relied on to spell correctly is “inappropriate”.

The politicisation of journalism training is just one of several adverse trends to have influenced the profession in my lifetime. Another was the takeover of our two biggest newspaper groups by Australian interests.

The Australians who acquired what were previously Wilson and Horton (owners of the New Zealand Herald group) and Independent Newspapers Ltd (publishers of The Dominion, The Evening Post, The Press and others) didn’t understand New Zealand, probably didn’t want to, and had little interest beyond making money. They had no emotional stake in the country and therefore little incentive or commitment to protect the New Zealand newspaper industry when the digital revolution kicked in and the going got tough.

Early evidence of their inability to understand this country, and their disdain for our way of doing things, came with their dismantling of the old New Zealand Press Association – an act of corporate vandalism that unravelled decades of news sharing by papers around the country. Under the NZPA arrangements, someone in in Tauranga or Invercargill could read about events of significance in Nelson or New Plymouth. We know far less about ourselves as a result of its demise.

I’m going to stick my neck out now and suggest that New Zealand journalism has also been damaged by feminisation. I hasten to emphasise that I’m not arguing, and would never argue, that women are not good for journalism. I have been fortunate to work with innumerable talented and sometimes formidable female journalists. I won’t name names because if I started, I wouldn’t know where to stop.

What I’m referring to is the feminisation of newspaper content. Pages once devoted to news of substance – so-called “hard news” and journal-of-record stories about parliamentary debates, court cases, council meetings and suchlike – are now filled with “soft”, lifestyle-oriented content: food, fashion, health, interior design, personal finances, travel and entertainment. I can’t imagine that the distinguished women journalists I’ve worked with would be any happier about this trend than I am.

But of course the most damaging development of all has been the devastation inflicted on the print  media as a result of the digital revolution. Tragically, newspaper owners have been complicit in this process. Panicked into joining the online revolution, they diverted precious resources from print and thus made inevitable the decline of their most valuable assets. In the process they brutally shed many of their most talented and experienced people, plugging the holes with younger, cheaper and (dare I say it) more compliant staff whose editorial judgment was often suspect.

I have sometimes asked myself whether the people who controlled the industry in the 20th century – distinguished New Zealand newspapermen such as Mike Robson of INL and Michael Horton of Wilson and Horton – would have succumbed so easily. I don’t believe they would have.  Cautious and conservative they may have been, but they had ink in their veins and would have regarded newspapers as worth fighting for. It’s no coincidence that the paper which most successfully weathered the ravages of the Internet era, the Otago Daily Times, is one that remained in New Zealand hands and under the control of an old-school proprietor.

To an old print hack like me, the devastation of the New Zealand media over the past 10 years has been heartbreaking. I console myself with the knowledge that I lived through what I now see as a golden age of New Zealand journalism – an era when newspapers were not only prosperous and well-resourced, but willing to challenge authority, to dig up stories that powerful people would have preferred to remain safely buried, and when necessary to spend lots of money defending their right and duty to do so. I don’t think there’s any doubt that the 1980s and 90s were a high-water mark for gutsy, risk-taking journalism, most of it done by newspapers.

For me, journalism has been a good career. I have met interesting people, been to fascinating places and witnessed events that most people don’t get to see. I have also worked with some unforgettably colourful characters, the like of whom will probably never again be seen in newsrooms, and made lifelong friends.

I didn’t get rich. No one in New Zealand ever became wealthy from journalism, although for some people it served as a springboard into other activities – notably public relations – that enabled them to buy flash cars and big houses in fashionable suburbs.

Would I recommend a career in journalism now? Sadly, no.

Footnote: In a past life I was editor and news editor of The Dominion and assistant editor of The Evening Post. I have worked on daily and Sunday papers in Australia, spent several years as a staff writer at the New Zealand Listener, and still cherish the memory of four happy years as news editor at what was then the Nelson Evening Mail (now simply the Nelson Mail). I have worked as a freelance journalist since 2002 and know how to spell “accommodation”.